Picture downtown Austin with spruced-up parks, urban rail, more tree-lined and wider sidewalks and moderately priced housing.
Those are some of the ideas described in a $1.6 million master plan that the City Council may consider today . The plan lays out a vision for transforming downtown that would cost as much as $350 million to carry out over the next decade. It’s not clear where the money would come from, but the likely options are fees, bond elections or partnerships with private companies.
Among other things, the plan calls for improving downtown parks such as Brush Square and Waterloo Park, adding lower-priced housing and services for homeless people, preserving historic buildings, changing zoning rules to encourage a greater mix of uses and creating an economic development group that can guide growth in the urban core.
City planners and the planning firm McCann Adams Studio have spent four years crafting the 200 -page plan, including holding more than 70 meetings with residents and interested groups.
The planners say downtown merits special attention because it is the city’s cultural soul and its economic engine — generating more property tax revenue per acre than other parts of town, which helps pay for parks, libraries, police and other services citywide. A compact downtown also directs growth away from environmentally sensitive areas, they said.
“Downtown is unlike other neighborhoods because it’s shared by everyone in the region,” said Jim Robertson , who has worked on the plan and manages the urban design division of the city’s planning department . “It is the center of nearly every important aspect of our community, from culture to recreation.”
Downtown Austin experienced a boom in the past decade, as new office and condo towers transformed the skyline and new destinations emerged, like the Second Street retail district. But the growth has left behind some Austinites who can’t afford high condo prices and retailers who can’t afford expensive rents, the plan says.
Hip new enclaves like Rainey Street, where bars and live music venues have sprung up, have also troubled longtime residents with noise and nuisance, the plan says.
Noting that downtown Austin is a diverse landscape, from the historical homes of Judges Hill to the nightlife of Sixth Street, the plan carves downtown into nine areas and lists goals for each.
For example, the plan allows for taller building heights as one moves from Judges Hill, in downtown’s northwest corner, southeast toward the heart of downtown.
“We think that will allow density and development without destroying what we have here,” said Jay Tassin of the Judges Hill Neighborhood Association .
Such changes would have to be approved later by the council.
The plan lists seven ideas for transforming all of downtown over the next 10 years, including turning existing parks into signature parks, reimagining Sixth Street as a destination for everyone, building public works projects (such as new water lines and sidewalks) to replace antiquated features and building urban rail. Mayor Lee Leffingwell hopes to hold a bond election in November 2012 to help pay for a first phase of an urban rail line.
The plan also includes creating incentives to preserve Red River Street as Austin’s premier live music destination, turning Congress Avenue into a grander boulevard — with more trees, outside cafes and wider sidewalks on some blocks — devising rules to prevent a high concentration of bars, converting some streets to two-way for better mobility and improving shabby or underused parks, such as areas along Waller Creek, where the city has started building a flood-control tunnel that will likely spur more development along downtown’s eastern edge.
The Downtown Austin Alliance , a coalition of downtown property and business owners, supports the plan.
An especially ambitious goal in the plan is to create 225 housing units downtown for very low-income and homeless people and an unspecified amount of housing for low-income and moderate income workers, roughly defined as individuals who earn between about $16,000 and $63,000 a year .
But the plan doesn’t say how the city should meet those goals, only suggests ideas such as developing publicly owned land, for which the city or state government could require developers to sell or rent units at lower rates.
Beyond shelter beds and short-term housing for homeless people, only about 25 apartments downtown are kept at lower rents because of city subsidies, assistant housing director Rebecca Giello said. To date, no developers have taken advantage of a voluntary city program through which they would provide low-rent housing in return for being allowed to build especially tall buildings downtown, she said.
Kevin Burns, CEO of Urbanspace Realtors, said some older condo units downtown start at prices of $99,000 . But newer downtown condo units start at about $220,000 , he said. “There are some” affordable condos for sale downtown, Burns said, “but not many.” (Search Downtown Austin Condos)
Charles Heimsath , president of the Austin real estate consulting firm Capitol Market Research , said: “The only way you can put more affordable units downtown is to provide a subsidy — city, state, federal, private. Someone will have to underwrite it,” he said. “The land is expensive, construction costs are high, and sites are difficult to find downtown.”
McCann Adams and city planners have suggested that the city start a bonus program that would allow developers to build taller, bigger buildings downtown than city rules normally allow.
But they would have to provide public benefits in return, such as including ecofriendly features, child care facilities or lower-priced housing on site, or paying into a city fund for affordable housing.
Those rules would apply to all residential projects, but only to especially large hotels, office towers or other commercial buildings.
The bonus program has been one of the most fiercely debated parts of the plan, with some neighborhood activists saying it doesn’t require developers to give enough in exchange for the extra development rights they would receive.
Others say the rules could stymie development.
“It doesn’t help to penalize developers for trying to produce density,” said Albert Stowell of the Original Austin Neighborhood Association , which covers the southwest section of downtown. “Density is the public benefit because it makes downtown more of a community. You have more people living here, more people who walk to the grocery store or walk to a park or a movie.”
City planners recently suggested an alternative to the bonus program: allowing developers to go through the city’s existing zoning process for downtown projects, during which they must appear before the Planning Commission and City Council to ask to build especially tall buildings. But, for the first time, developers would also have to explain how they could or could not comply with the elements of the density bonus program.
A few council members have balked at that option, saying the point of a bonus program is to have a predictable way of determining how much extra development rights are worth downtown, rather than continuing the case-by-case deal-making that happens now.
“Either the (bonus program should apply to everyone, or we shouldn’t have it,” said Perry Lorenz , who has developed condo projects downtown. “Otherwise we’re back to the same uneven playing field.”
If the council agrees to adopt the downtown plan today , city staffers would spend several months fleshing out details like the bonus program and zoning changes, which would then come back to the council for a vote.